Using Windows Azure for smarter BLOBs storage

Windows Azure Platform consists of three product brands. These are Windows Azure (an operating system providing scalable compute and storage facilities), SQL Azure (a cloud-based, scale-out version of SQL Server) and Windows Azure AppFabric. Unstructured data or BLOB storage is provided as part of Windows Azure Storage services. Some of the immediate benefits associated with SharePoint BLOB storage content in off-premises Windows Azure are:

1. Fault-tolerance: Replication of BLOBs to multiple locations makes Windows Azure BLOB storage highly resilient.
2. Cost Reduction: Operational costs associated with acquisition, operation and maintenance of storage hardware are immediately eliminated.
3. Flexibility: BLOBs can be consumed from anywhere.
4. Scalability: Windows Azure can offer virtually limitless storage space at minimal cost.
5. Seamless Integration: With solutions such as StorageEdge, the integration of SharePoint with Windows Azure based storage just becomes very simple (shown later in the article).

However, most IT Pros show immediate concerns for the control, security of the content, data access performance, in-sync backup/restore and storage service uptime. Since Azure-based storage means that you offload the BLOBs from SharePoint, lack of control regarding the management of storage is a natural consideration.

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The answer is to adopt a hybrid deployment approach, that is, to keep SharePoint on premise along with most commonly used BLOBs, and then store the older and less frequently used BLOBs in Windows Azure which can provide you significant cost reduction. Use of StorageEdge can help you gain additional comfort through a number of essential features while you move older documents out of your on premise infrastructure (discussed in the subsequent section).

SharePoint BLOB storage can be externalized to Windows Azure Storage using RBS based BLOB externalization facilities of StorageEdge.

Figure 1: SharePoint BLOBs Storage on Windows Azure

StorageEdge allows the enterprises to move SharePoint BLOBs from SQL Server to virtually any storage option including Windows Azure. StorageEdge helps overcome many of the risks and considerations associated with cloud storage. It allows you to create a healthy mix of data storage with some of the data hosted locally while some data offloaded to the cloud.

StorageEdge lets you externalize SharePoint BLOBs that you desire to Windows Azure Storage. In fact, with StorageEdge you can use a number of filters to automatically identify the right candidates for externalization. StorageEdge lets you create storage profile for Windows Azure to externalize the SharePoint BLOBs there. Following figure shows the GUI to configure a storage profile for externalizing content to windows Azure Storage.

Figure 2: Configure a Storage Profile for Windows Azure in StorageEdge

When you configure the storage profile for windows Azure, StorageEdge requires you mainly to set a Windows Azure Storage connection string containing the account name, key given by Microsoft and a container property.

Then, you can specify different types of criteria for externalizing BLOBs such as Age and Versions. Once the storage profile has been configured, you can immediately see the BLOBs being externalized to Windows Azure Storage.

Some of the additional important features you can use with Windows Azure Storage are:

1. Encryption of Content: The BLOBs are encrypted before writing to external storage. StorageEdge supports encryption on a storage profile thus providing first layer of security to the externalized BLOBs. It supports DES-64bit or AES-128bit encryption.

Figure 3: Encryption Settings in StorageEdge

2. File Shredding: The tool responsible for externalized BLOBs management must make sure all permanently deleted content is irrecoverable using any third-party tools. StorageEdge has a fool-proof file shredding mechanism coming into play when the BLOB is permanently deleted from SharePoint.

Figure 4: Shredding in StorageEdge

3. Compression: StorageEdge provides for compression of BLOBs using GZip.
4. Encrypted File Names: The BLOB management tool must be such as to ensure that the file names are encrypted. This becomes especially important when you move the content to a storage media which is out of your enterprise such as in the cloud.

So, StorageEdge takes care of your hybrid SharePoint infrastructure management needs with provision of enough control and flexibility. So having Windows Azure Storage as the mainstay of your BLOB archiving strategy, not only reduces storage costs, but it also improves SharePoint performance because the most active storage no longer contains a huge amount of documents that can potentially inundate it.

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